A good portion of the Interstate 77 toll lane project will be done by the end of the year, as the private contractor building the road had planned. But not all of it.
It’s unclear exactly how many miles of the 26-mile toll project will be open by the time 2018 ends. Fines on the private company for finishing the project late won’t kick in until November 2019, instead of in January, as was originally planned.
“It is NCDOT’s understanding the developer anticipates opening lanes on the north section of the project by the end of the year,” Steve Abbott, assistant communications director at the NCDOT, said in a statement.
Officials at the North Carolina Department of Transportation and Spanish infrastructure firm Cintra, which is building the tolls and will collect revenue for 50 years, didn’t provide estimates of how much of the road might open on time, or when the rest would be complete.
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“The northern section is nearing completion,” said Jean Leier, spokeswoman I-77 Mobility Partners, the Cintra subsidiary building the project. But the cold weather now coming in makes paving difficult, and Leier said much of the work yet to be done on the southern section will take place in 2019.
The 26-mile stretch of roadway from uptown to Mooresville is littered with construction equipment. Sections still need paving, especially south of I-485, and the gantries — overhead racks with electronic toll readers and cameras — need to be installed on the southern part of the roadway. Some of the bridges that are supposed to provide direct access to and from parts of the toll lanes are still bare columns and girders, and won’t be complete until next year.
The contract between Cintra and NCDOT originally called for I-77 Mobility Partners to face fines of $10,000 a day if the road wasn’t complete by Jan. 7, 2019. That date’s been shifted, however, and now fines for late completion won’t be assessed unless the road is still not done a year from now.
Both I-77 Mobility Partners and the NCDOT attributed that delay to additional work that has been added by the government to the project since the contract was signed, such as pavement repair the contractor is doing on all the free lanes in addition to the toll lanes. Direct connections from the bridges spanning I-77 at Lakeview Road and Hambright Road, which will give drivers access to and from the toll lanes in both directions at those locations, were requested by the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization and approved in 2017.
Project deadlines and the schedule of milestones were extended to accommodate those changes.
“When work is added to a construction project, more time is needed to complete it,” said NCDOT spokeswoman Jen Thompson.
Leier said drivers will get a discount if only part of the toll lanes open on time.
“In the event I-77 Express opens to traffic before all sections are complete, then motorists will receive a discount on toll rates,” Leier said. Leier wouldn’t say how much the discount might be, only that it would be announced “before the express lanes open.”
For the first six months, tolls would cost up to $6.55 to drive the full length of the project, with prices changing on a schedule at different times of day. That means a 52-mile round trip would cost up to $13.10 for the first six months. (Those prices are for users with an NC Quick Pass transponder; bill-by-mail rates are higher.)
After the first six months, tolls will vary based on congestion, and could change as frequently as every five minutes. Under “dynamic pricing,” tolls to drive the whole length will range from $2.45 when traffic is light to $9.40 when traffic is heaviest. A round trip for the whole road could cost anywhere from $4.90 to $18.80, though those minimum and maximum rates could be adjusted in the future.
The $647 million toll lane project is mostly funded by I-77 Mobility Partners.
Construction on the toll lanes started in 2015. The project has been a political powder keg for years, with residents in north Mecklenburg and Iredell counties incensed that the congested stretch of roadway isn’t being widened with any free lanes.
Despite years of protests and backlash, the contract hasn’t been repealed. Furor over the toll lanes contributed to the ouster of politicians like Gov. Pat McCrory and state Sen. Jeff Tarte, whose opponents used the project as a major campaign issue.
While there’s broad agreement among Democrats and Republicans in Raleigh that the toll lane contract should be canceled, neither side has taken concrete steps to do so. Republicans in the state legislature want Gov. Roy Cooper to cancel the contract first, while Cooper wants the legislature to set up a plan to pay for costs associated with the cancellation before doing so.
In the meantime, N.C. Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdon is trying to negotiate intermediate measures such as placing a cap on toll fees and opening shoulders to traffic during peak periods. The state’s ultimate goal is to take over the toll lane project and turn one of the new lanes on I-77 into a general purpose lane, Trogdon has said.